Voice of Experience
J C Stearns
A rather tempting offer from my Kindle app (Spend £10 – get £3 credit) was enough for me to take a plunge into Warhammer fiction and pick up some stories that I’d been desperate to read since they had been published by Black Library, my ears deaf for once to the desperate places from my wallet and bank account. I picked up the Blackstone Fortress-themed anthology Vaults of Obsidian which I’m reading at the moment, as well as the two short stories that I reviewed on the blog a few days ago – Maria Haskins’ The Jagged Edge and The Siege of Greenspire by Anna Stephens. I was eager to read all of them, especially the anthology, but it was my last purchase – with my Kindle credit – that I was most interested in reading and reviewing: J C Stearn’s Voice of Experience. That’s because ever since I saw the back-cover blurb for the story, and Stearn’s name attached to it, I knew it was a story I just had to read.
Stearns presents us with a story told from the point of view of Kalice Arkady, formerly an officer in the Astra Militarum commanding a company of the Follaxian 113th Iregulars, and now a defector to the T’au Empire and a fervent convert to the concept of the Greater Good espoused by the xenos race. Trusted and valued by the T’au in the Nem’yar Atoll, a former Imperial system recently conquered by the T’au, Kalice Arkady is tasked with investigating a string of sabotage acts that have struck the space station Arkady is stationed on. The attacks have killed dozens of humans and xeno citizens and destroyed ships and food supplies, and as human malcontents are suspected, Arkady is given the honour of leading the investigation, accompanied by a member of the Water Caste. However as she begins to look into how the sabotage occurred and who could be behind it, some ugly truths about the T’au and the Greater Good are slowly exposed; and the true enemy behind the sabotage, lurking in the shadows, is far more terrifying than anything Arkady can imagine.
It’s an incredibly exciting and thought-provoking scenario – not just because of the talented author behind it, but also because it grants us a rare insight into the T’au empire from the viewpoint of a turncoat human – or ‘Gue’vesa’vres’ to the xenos. Arkady is not just your average civilian defector, but a relatively senior officer of the Imperial Guard who became disillusioned with the indifferent and brutal manner she and her troopers were treated with by their superiors, and defected with her entire company when fighting the T’au. She’s a deeply fascinating character who makes for an engaging protagonist, and one of the many strengths of Voice of Experience is watching Stearns slowly reveal the exact reasons why she deserted, and why the Greater Good has genuine appeal to her. But cleverly, Stearns balances this out as the story progresses by having Arkady begin to see some of the truths behind the Potemkin Village-style façade that the T’au erect for the benefit of their human collaborators, as well as revealing some of the tensions between the T’au and the smaller xeno races allied to them.
Arkady has a great deal of depth to her character, despite the relatively short word-count of the story, and that’s the same for the other major characters, especially Kartyr, the Earth Caste member she’s paired with during her investigation. While he starts off as a stereotypical passive-aggressive, faintly patronising T’au, as events occur and truths are revealed, he gradually develops an edge of cynicism that nicely mirrors Arkady’s inherent belief in the Greater Good, and they work well together as a pairing. And while they’re really only brief cameos, the characterisation and motives of the Ethereal, and other senior T’au members of the council running the Atoll, seems absolutely spot-on with a deft blend of arrogance, etiquette and inscrutability. In addition, there’s some thought-provoking examinations of T’au culture and the way in which they attempt to integrate their culture with those who defect to them. We see how the casual brutality of the Imperium is removed – no more punishment and discipline areas or oppressive architecture, just wide-open spaces and calming colours; but replaced with a more distant, capitalist-style structure where humans are required to raise ‘issues’ with their ‘overseers’ and not go outside of the boundaries drawn for them by the T’au. Add in some unique glimpses as to the nature of T’au criminal and justice systems (or rather their curious absence) and you have perhaps one of the finest examinations of T’au culture and society yet published by Black Library.
Voice of Experience is a fantastic piece of Warhammer 40,000 fiction that deftly integrates an intriguing plot revolving around sabotage and assailants lurking in the shadows, with the cultural clashes between the T’au Empire and the humans who defect to the cause of the Greater Good. Stearns once again demonstrates his innate understanding of the 40k setting, and his ability to create engaging and thought-provoking characters, alongside a well-judged sense of pacing for the plot. Also infused with a quiet sense of black humour, as Arkady and Kartyr navigate the many hidden pitfalls of defecting to the T’au, and the often-uncomfortable integration of human and T’au customs in the newly ‘liberated’ Nem’yar Atoll, Voice of Experience is a highly rewarding short story that fully merits its purchase outside of an anthology. Stearns has once again shown just how good a writer he is, able to work inside the 40k setting regardless of what race he writes about, or location he chooses. I would be extremely surprised if we did not see a Warhammer Crime novel from him when it launches in the next few months, as he seems a natural fit for the imprint; but I will most definitely be picking up his stories regardless of where Black Library publishes them.